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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Does sexual selection explain dislike of inequality?

It is not the peacock with big-enough tail that gets to mate, but the one with the biggest tail

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is on the connection between our interest in relative inequality and the theory of sexual selection:

Evolution by sexual selection is an idea that goes back to Charles Darwin. He had little doubt that it explained much about human beings, and modern biologists generally agree. One of them has even put a figure on it, concluding that some 54.8% of selection in human beings is effectively caused by reproduction of the sexiest rather than survival of the fittest.

Some years ago, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his book "The Mating Mind" explored the notion that since human males woo their mates with art, poetry, music and humor, as well as with brawn, much of the expansion of our brain may have been sexually selected.

Recently Jason Collins and two colleagues at the University of Western Australia, in a discussion paper posted on the Web, have made the case that sexual selection explains civilization itself. They mathematically explored the possibility that "as females prefer males who conspicuously consume, an increasing proportion of males engage in innovation, labor and other productive activities in order to engage in conspicuous consumption. These activities contribute to technological progress and economic growth."

Psychological evidence points the same way. In one experiment, men who were shown pictures of women promptly expressed more extravagant desires for expensive luxuries, whereas women showed no such effect after seeing pictures of men. There's historical evidence, too. As Aristotle Onassis is supposed to have said, "If women did not exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning."

Moreover, Michael Shermer, in his book "The Mind of the Market," argues that you can trace anticapitalist egalitarianism to sexual selection. Back in the hunter-gatherer Paleolithic, inequality had reproductive consequences. The successful hunter, providing valuable protein for females, got a lot more mating opportunities than the unsuccessful. So it's possible that men still walk around with a relatively simple equation in their brains, namely that relative success at obtaining assets results in more sexual adventures and more grandchildren.

If so, this might explain why it is relative, rather than absolute, inequality that matters so much to people today. In modern Western society, when even relatively poor people have access to transport, refrigeration, entertainment, shoes and plentiful food, you might expect that inequality would be less resented than a century ago-when none of those things might come within the reach of a poor person. What does it matter if there are people who can afford private jets and designer dresses?

But clearly that isn't how people think. They resent inequality in luxuries just as much if not more than inequality in necessities. They dislike (and envy) conspicuous consumption, even if it impinges on them not at all. What hurts is not that somebody is rich, but that he is richer.

This is a classic statement of sexual selection. It isn't the peacock with the big-enough tail that gets to mate; it's the peacock with the biggest tail. If this sounds old-fashioned in an age of working women, gender equality and relative sexual continence, then open your eyes and look around you: The man with the most money or power still gets more sexual opportunities than the man with the least. Ask David Petraeus.

In human beings, females compete for males as well as vice versa. In many species, sexual selection is a force that acts on only one sex, usually the male. Peahens, which can share the best males and don't require them to be diligent parents after mating, do not grow colorful tails. But in other species, notably some seabirds and parrots, where males and females share parenting duties equally, both sexes are equally colorful-a result of competition by both sexes to attract the best mates.